At TD Garden, Eric Church doubles down
Since debuting in 2006 with the sharp-edged “Sinners Like Me,” Eric Church has walked his own path, letting his music-lover ethos guide him through six albums and countless live shows. Last year’s “Desperate Man” continued Church’s musical expansion; while his music remains rooted firmly in the honest-talkin’, honky-tonkin’ ideals that are at the center of country, songs like the stark blues hymn “High Wire” and the boogieing title track put to tape the catholic influences he’d hinted at on earlier songs like the vinyl ode “Record Year” and the lovingly nostalgic “Mr. Misunderstood.”
The North Carolina native’s current tour furthers that ideal. Named the “Double Down Tour,” it consists of 19 two-night engagements, with each show switching up the setlist. Friday night’s two-set, three-plus-hour show at TD Garden proved that this was a smart move, showing off the depth of Church’s catalog and the breadth of his band’s ability while also letting devotees appreciate the deeper cuts. His resounding melodies and everyman lyrics rang out whether the backing track was a hard-edged jam session by his crack band or just his own acoustic guitar, and he clearly reveled in the mere act of playing, an enthusiasm that turned into an ever-building, increasingly thrilling feedback loop over the evening.
While Church’s approach puts the music first, his showmanship is unparalleled, as he showed over and over during Friday night’s set. A catwalk jutted out from the stage, creating a general-admission pit for people who wanted to get close to the action and allowing Church to strut farther into the crowd, high-fiving fans and autographing proffered items like boots (in honor of the travelogue “These Boots”) and vinyl editions of Church’s back catalog (to celebrate “Record Year”). Microphones all around the catwalk let Church greet the audience during his prowls. He gave copious shout-outs to Boston and the Patriots; he punctuated the regretful “Jack Daniels” with a set of shots for himself and the crew, and a shared drink between himself and a fan; he even stared down an audience brawl, ending it with his potent energy. The well-oiled machine he led, particularly his spitfire backing vocalist Joanna Cotton, was stellar all night, perfectly calibrating their sonic assault to the setlist’s shifting moods and adding a couple of flourishes that placed metal and country on crisper and grimier ends of the same musical spectrum. (The addition of Black Sabbath’s crushing “Sweet Leaf” riff to the shuffling, and similarly minded, “Smoke a Little Smoke” was especially fist-pump-worthy.)
Just as the clock approached midnight, the band cleared out, leaving Church and his guitar alone. He launched into the tender, thoughtful look back “Mistress Named Music,” his baritone possessing a Van Morrison-like lilt. But he was hardly done: It was the lead-in to a medley of songs from his past, including Jonathan Edwards’s “Sunshine” and Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” which crested when he kicked into the Neil Diamond classic-turned Fenway Park standard “Sweet Caroline” — and while the ovation that ensued was to be expected from a Boston crowd, it had an extra fervor that was all Church’s doing.
At TD Garden, Friday